An ESPLOST rant . . . [updated]

UPDATE, 12/20: I don’t have a whole lot new to say about Jenel Few’s lengthy article in today’s Savannah Morning News: Savannah-Chatham ESPLOST promises broken again

From the article:

Residents on Savannah’s declining eastside supported the education sales tax extension, ESPLOST II, believing that Spencer Elementary School’s old flood-prone campus would be replaced with a beautiful, modern facility.

Families in the new growth areas of Port Wentworth went to the polls expecting that ESPLOST II would fund a new neighborhood K-8 school for their little ones.

But one year after the education sales tax was extended, the construction plans are being scaled back by $12 million because of low revenue collections.

So the revenue projections were so wildly off base that two neighborhoods are not going to get the new construction they were promised.

I don’t know enough about the spending process to say if money has been wasted in recent years (though there are dubious examples in the article today), but I do know that the school system has a growing track record of terrible revenue estimations.

Of course, ESPLOST was approved by a wide margin last year. But we’re looking at another SPLOST vote in 2013, and today’s news hurts the chances for that critical vote. And last summer’s T-SPLOST went down hard, in large measure because the public didn’t trust the local and state officials who would oversee the spending — despite the fact that all the promised projects had to be completed by law.

Anyway, here’s my original post from June, the last but not the only time the school system realized they were coming up short.


Let me begin by saying that I was among the 1/3 of Chatham County voters last November who voted against a second round of ESPLOST — the 1 percent sales tax collected specifically for infrastructure projects.

But I’m absolutely in favor of increased spending on public education in the county, and I’m absolutely willing to support specific infrastructure upgrades. Raise my property taxes. Raise sales taxes that can also go to teacher hiring and general operations.

But I lost faith in the ESPLOST process a number of years ago, and that feeling has only been confirmed by the news this week of a $15 million shortfall in the first round of collections.

Today’s editorial in the Savannah Morning News primarily blames the elected Board of Education for the weirdly sudden bad news, but this is at heart a failure of well-paid staff who should be aware of revenue trends. ESPLOST brings in the ballpark of $5 million per month, so it should have been obvious at least six months ago that the numbers needed to be revised downward again.

Let me hit upon a few other reasons I’m so down on the process.

This isn’t the first time estimates have failed to match actual revenues. In 2008, school officials were estimating $368 million in total revenue, but that included some absurd projections, including an almost 7% increase in sales tax revenue in the final year of FY 2012 compared to FY 2011. That projection was created during the boom year of 2006, but that’s massive growth in retail sales just to assume even in a strong economy. By early 2008, the slowdown was already underway. The downward revisions should already have been underway too.

And here’s where there’s a simple math problem. After even a few slower than expected months, the revenue hole starts getting impossibly deep. We not only would have to recover to the previous trend line but also exceed the already-high expectations just to get back to the level of the original projections.

Staff and board then compounded the problems in my mind by pursuing the construction of a West Chatham high school — now called New Hampstead High School and set to open this fall (although construction will be incomplete) — in a location so remote from existing population centers (i.e., Pooler and environs) that we’re going to see horrible public and private commutes and transportation costs.

I routinely pointed out the poor choice of location in my City Talk columns and last year in a post on this blog.

My complaints got pretty much no traction. Even West Chatham and Pooler residents seemed to embrace the site — they simply seemed happy to have a high school to claim as their own. I can only imagine how some of those parents are going to feel when they realize that their children will face 15-20 mile daily roundtrips — in some cases more than their current commutes to the nearest high schools.

Savannah and Chatham County have some critical infrastructure needs, but in some cases we also need to worry about how expansions of infrastructure will impact ongoing costs.

We’ve done a pretty lousy job of that regarding ESPLOST monies.

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